100 days and counting, Thai community mourns its king – LA Times

Anh Do – Contact Reporter
Irfan Khan/LA Times – Photo

In quiet corners of her home, she pays tribute to the beloved, the musk of incense mingling with winter blooms.

For days, then weeks, then months, Kobkaew Field’s tears would not stop. Dressed in black, she mourned not for a mother or father, brother or sister, daughter or son, but for a king.

Bhumibol Adulyadej. The ninth monarch of Thailand.
For 70 years he reigned, until his death one day in October.

“Sometimes, I think I want to die before I know this news of him leaving us,” Field said. “My heart is empty.”

Over the weekend, the Buddhist observation of the 100-day anniversary of his death drew tens of thousands of Thai Americans to temples across the United States, including in Hollywood’s Thai Town.

The surge of grief is likely to march on, even into the spring, particularly for those who only ever knew one king.

“Everyone’s keeping to their black wardrobe. The mood is quite serious,” said Chancee Martorell, executive director of the cultural and social services group, Thai Community Development Center. “There are no big celebrations for holidays. It’s all been canceled, even for American New Year and Thai New Year,” which begins on April 13.

Field, 60, vows to cover herself in black until the one-year mark of the monarch’s death.

“I cannot even think about going to parties,” said the North Hollywood resident. “I just think about the king, my king. This is a man who lived a simple life, who has a farm inside his palace — which is not like Buckingham Palace.”

“She cries and cries,” said Field’s husband, Michael. “You have to understand that she is devoted to a king who sat on a throne, but he cared for ordinary subjects. There are countless stories of him traveling across the land, stopping to talk to the poor, asking how he could make things easier.”

King Bhumibol, who died on Oct. 13, came to the throne in 1946. A trim, bespectacled man, he lived in opulent palaces but nurtured a relatively austere life. He was equally comfortable among the rich and the poor, sometimes taking a camera to examine rural development projects. By the time of his death, more than 2,000 projects in Thailand bore the fingerprints of his planning.

He was an accomplished composer and musician, who unlike many of the loyal subjects who mourn him virtually never left Thailand, despite being born in Cambridge, Mass., where his father was studying medicine at Harvard.

The monarch was a descendant of King Mongkut, who was depicted in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical “The King and I.”

“Most of us, this is who we have always looked up to so it’s not easy to lose him. The day he died is a day we will never forget,” said Phaitoon Sarujikamjorn, 44.

After the king’s death, the Long Beach resident rushed to a meeting at the Thai consulate in L.A. where officials began planning a series of events to honor him. L.A. County is home to the largest population of people of Thai descent outside of Thailand, with about 100,000 people, many concentrated in East Hollywood and northeast San Fernando Valley.

In Thai Town, altars with offerings of fruit and fresh food in restaurants, markets and mom-and-pop shops feature images of the king.

“Even in the tiny places, there will be tributes to him because he is highly venerated,” Martorell said. “The Thais have such a close bond to their country because compared to other Asian Pacific Islander communities in the U.S., our community’s history [in the U.S.] is brief — just 60 years. We haven’t been here that long and we travel back and forth to maintain our ties.”

Chris Sukhaphadhana, a patent lawyer in Los Angeles, returned from a recent visit to Thailand with his wife.

“Our bonds are strengthened every time we go back. Imagine having the same king when you were born and when your parents were born,” the 37-year-old said. “Part of our ties to this king is longevity. There are no term limits so he had decades to be able to amass a body of work.”

Pichaya Na Takuathung, 31, worried whether she had enough black dresses for mourning. Even though the king, served by 30 prime ministers during his reign, had been in worsening health, she said she was startled when she suddenly received sympathy texts from a Chinese American friend.

“My grandma had to be hospitalized, she refused to eat,” said the real estate student from Monterey Park. “Before him, people would not look at kings in the eye, but on his adventures, he actually knelt down to talk to people. When I was little, I actually took it for granted that all kings did that.”

Growing up, Na Takuathung went on a school field trip to King Bhumibol’s palace to see how workers at a factory on the grounds made nutritious milk candy for children who didn’t like drinking milk.

Sarujikamjorn would not speculate about the king’s successor, Prince Vajiralongkorn, now crowned as King Rama X. He is considered an international playboy, thrice married and divorced. He likes fast cars and was living in Germany until ascending to the throne.

“Responsibility can transform someone and can elevate someone,” said Sarujikamjorn, vice president of the Thai Assn. of Southern California. “We all have commitment to our values and our country. No matter where a Thai lives, we step up, speak up, stand up for our culture and our monarchy.”

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